Trade unions in action
As globalisation throws up problems for workers that do not respond to purely national solutions, international co-operation and solidarity between trade unionists, unions, national centres (such as the TUC) and international trade union organisations play an increasingly crucial role in safeguarding workers' rights.
On this page, you'll find a few examples of how the trade union movement is tackling some of the key problems arising from, or intensified by globalisation.
The TUC is actively involved in supporting activities in all these areas. Find out more here.
Several hundred trade unionists are killed each year. Several thousands more are imprisoned, beaten in demonstrations, tortured by security forces or others, and often sentenced to long prison terms.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of workers lose their jobs merely for attempting to organise a trade union. Throughout the world, millions of workers, often women and children, are forced to work against their will.
campaign for trade union and human rights
Together with its affiliates, its regional organisations, the International Trade Secretariats, and non-governmental organisations from all over the world, the ICFTU wages a permanent campaign for the universal respect of trade union rights, as guaranteed by the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation.
Every year, it
produces an Annual Survey
of Violations of Trade Union Rights; makes appeals to its affiliates for urgent
action on behalf of persecuted trade unionists; lodges complaints at the ILO against
countries violating trade union rights, either alone or in association with national
trade unions and International Trade Secretariats, and draws media attention to
the abuses suffered by workers.
For more information, click here.
In Burma, on any given day, several hundred thousand men, women, children and elderly people are forced to work against their will by the country's military rulers.
Forced labour can include building army camps, roads, bridges, railroads, etc. Refusal to work may lead to being detained, tortured, raped, or killed.
The International Labour Organisation has called on Burma's authorities to end the practice of forced labour since the early 1960's.
In 1997, the ruling SPDC refused to co-operate with a special ILO Commission of Inquiry into violations by Burma of the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (ILO Convention no. 29).
In early 1998, it refused to allow the Commission into the country. In its report, the Commission of Inquiry said forced labour in Burma was a crime against humanity, likely to continue as long as the military stayed in power.
In June 2000, the annual ILO Conference adopted a Resolution calling on its constituents (Governments, Employers, and Trade Unions) to review relations with Burma and cease any relations that might aid its military junta to abet forced labour.
The Resolution also called on all UN and other multilateral agencies to do the same. It came into effect on November 30 after the ILO Governing Body decided that it was not satisfied that Burma had done enough to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry.
a message of support to the Federation of Trade Unions Burma via their
ICEM campaign to end slavery in Burma
Burma is in the grip of a ruthless military junta which owes much of its wealth to its worldwide trafficking in illegal narcotics. But the regime also draws big financial support from multinational companies - notably in the oil, gas and mining sectors.
Pressure to end forced labour in Burma has been stepped up by the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM).
Find out more about their campaign.
ITF - International Transport Workers' Federation action on Burma
The International Transport Workers' Federation is a federation of 594 transport trade unions in 136 countries, representing around 5 million workers.
It organises workers in ships, ports, railways, road freight and passenger transport, inland waterways, fisheries, tourism and civil aviation.
Forced labour in Burma takes on myriad forms, including labour constructing and maintaining roads, railways, and dams, building and maintaining Army camps, acting as servants and sentries at Army camps, clearing roadsides, standing sentry along military access roads, sweeping roads for landmines, acting as messengers and guides for Army officers, forced labour farming for the Army on confiscated land, forced labour digging fishponds, logging, or baking bricks for the personal profit of Army officers, and many other forms.
For the ITF brochure on Burma, click here.
The role of multinational enterprises in the world economy has increased steadily in the decades following the Second World War.
The conduct of multinational enterprises is not necessarily better or worse than that found in purely national or local companies. They are, at times, better placed to carry improvements in working conditions and development. However, they can also help drive a race to the bottom.
One aspect of globalisation is the increasing power of multinationals to disrupt collective bargaining agreements or bargaining structures.
Multinational enterprises also operate in countries where external control of their practices is difficult if not impossible (China, for example). Add to this a very complex structure of subcontractors, sub-subcontractors (often with steps further down the line), suppliers, outsourcing, networks, etc., and the need for strong international trade union structures becomes apparent.
The growing role of multinational enterprises in the world economy has also affected the behaviour of national and local governments.
Sometimes it seems as if there is as much or more competition among governments for investment from multinationals than there is among companies for market share. Incentives to attract investment can range from tax holidays and infrastructure construction to special laws and the denial of workers' rights.
A key trade union tool for addressing the growth of corporate power is the framework agreement. Such agreements are being negotiated by International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) which are international trade union organisations that link together trade unions organising in the same economic sector.
The IUF - Food and allied sectors
The IUF, is a global federation of unions organising employees in the food and allied sectors. It is committed to defending the interests of its members in the globalised economy.
A key mechanism for addressing the growth of corporate power is the pattern of international framework agreements negotiated by the IUF and multinational corporations on trade union rights and minimum labour standards.
Here are some examples of negotiated agreements with
These international framework agreements do not substitute for or replace collective bargaining at the plant and national levels. Their purpose is to secure the capacities of unions at those levels to confront the concentrated power of global corporations.
IUF, international framework agreements on trade union rights, together
with international action to address the inequalities in the current global
trade and investment systems, are the fundamental building blocks in the
construction of a new system of international industrial relations appropriate
for working people in the age of the global corporation.
ICEM - Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions
A top priority for the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) is to negotiate global agreements with multinational companies and sectors. Major subjects covered by these agreements include trade union rights, health, safety and environment and equality at work.
The aim is to ensure consistently high standards worldwide by securing the right of the ICEM and its member unions to monitor companies' global performance on these and other issues, and to raise any alleged breaches of the agreements with corporate headquarters management.
This is the crucial difference between global agreements and companies' own codes of conduct. The ICEM emphasises that such agreements are also in the best interests of the companies and their stakeholders, as they give substance and credibility to corporate ethics.
of global agreements are now under negotiation - find out more here.
There is no shortage of codes of conduct or guidelines covering the operations of multinational companies. If anything, there has been a proliferation of voluntary instruments in recent years.
Many companies now have codes - often unilateral ones which have not been developed with trade union participation and which don't have effective monitoring and verification systems. NGOs have also been developing codes of conduct.
What makes the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises ('the Guidelines') significant is the fact that they have been adopted by all 30 OECD governments as well as some non-OECD countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
They are endorsed by these governments and represent their shared expectation as to how multinationals should behave.
The Guidelines go beyond employment and industrial relations to cover broader issues like human rights, disclosure of information, environmental protection, corruption, and taxation. They also benefit from having an implementation process in which governments, through a National Contact Point, play a central role.
Each government which has adopted the OECD Guidelines is obliged to set up a National Contact Point (NCP) who is responsible for promoting, implementing and overseeing the application of the Guidelines in that country. This includes dealing with complaints brought against multinational companies under the provisions of the Guidelines.
The NCP is required to report and feed back to the OECD on at least an annual basis. In some OECD countries, the NCP is a tripartite body. In the UK, he is a DTI civil servant.
The Guidelines are not just limited to the OECD countries- they have a global reach. They can be used as a tool both to promote responsible corporate behaviour and to address negative behaviour through the complaints procedure.
For more information, see the Guide for trade unions produced by the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC), and the UK National Contact Point Information Booklet below.
Note: TUAC is an international trade union organisation which has consultative status with the OECD. It represents organised labour's views to that organisation. As the OECD is taking in new members and becoming the forum for intergovernmental discussions on globalisation, TUAC's role is now one of ensuring that global markets are balanced by an effective social dimension.
Today, 250 million children are working. 125 million of them have never seen the inside of a classroom.
More than two-thirds of all working children are found in the agricultural sector followed by manufacturing, the wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and hotels, domestic and other 'personal services'. While at work, a large number of children are affected by numerous hazards.
The ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)
IPEC's aim is to work towards the progressive elimination of child labour by strengthening national capacities to address child labour problems, and by creating a worldwide movement to combat it.
IPEC's priority target groups are bonded child labourers, children in hazardous working conditions and occupations and children who are particularly vulnerable, i.e. very young working children (below 12 years of age), and working girls.
The political will and commitment of individual governments to address child labour in cooperation with employers' and workers' organizations, other NGOs and relevant parties in society - such as universities and the media - is the starting point for all IPEC action.
large and small, throughout the world are working with IPEC. Find out
ITGLWF - The International Textile, Garment & Leather Workers' Federation
The ITGLWF brings together 220 organisations in 110 countries, with a combined membership of over 10 million workers. Find out more about its campaign to bring an end to child labour.
ICFTU campaign to stop child labour
has launched a worldwide campaign to stop child labour. Click here
for more information.
The form of globalisation we have seen in recent decades has been characterised by the relentless drive to liberalise trade i.e. to remove trade barriers, promote privatisation, and reduce regulation.
Many developing countries have been forced to adopt harsh structural adjustment programmes in return for loans from the World Bank and IMF. As a result of these programmes, they have had to orientate their economies towards producing exports and to reduce already inadequate spending on public services such as health and education.
The liberalisation of trade in services has also been on the agenda at the WTO, giving rise to public concern in both developing and industrialised countries over the privatisation of public services.
Public Services International
Public Services International, or PSI, is an international trade union federation for public sector unions.
More than 500 public service trade unions in more than 140 countries make up PSI. Together these unions represent more than 20 million public sector workers.
Since 1907, PSI has organised public sector workers in many different occupations. Today, health workers, fire-fighters, workers in public utilities, child minders, civil servants, judges, food inspectors, social workers and a large number of other professional groups make up PSI's membership.
PSI has been part of the international struggle to bring to account the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, multinational enterprises and governments which make decisions about global trade, production, investment and structural adjustment. Find out more about PSI's work on international trade, economy and finance here.
PSI has worked on the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) treaty for a number of years. It has engaged in discussions with the WTO and governments and has raised awareness of the issue both within and beyond the trade union movement.
PSI has produced a number of briefings on the impact of the trade in services on the public sector. Click here for more information.
PSI collaborates with Education International (see below) on the GATS issue.
Education International - Global Campaign for Education
Education International is a world-wide trade union organisation of education personnel, whose 24 million members in 304 national trade unions and associations in 155 countries and territories represent all sectors of education from pre-school to university.
Education has in recent years become an important issue for many NGOs, like teachers' unions, in their advocacy work at the national and international level.
There is a growing conviction that basic education is one of the key factors in the eradication of poverty and that it is the cornerstone of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development. Also, in eliminating the worst forms of child labour, education plays a vital role.
The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) brings together organisations working in 180 countries, and aims to hold governments accountable for the fact that 125 million children are denied an education.
The GCE was launched by three international organisations - Education International, Action Aid and Oxfam International - in partnership with civil society networks throughout the developing world and the Global March Against Child Labour.
Read more about the Global Campaign for Education.